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by Dan Semrad
All photos courtesy of Dan Semrad
People often ask me, what got you into freediving? Apparently, pursuing a career in breath-hold diving doesn’t seem like a logical choice for a guy born and raised in Oregon. The answer to that question is undeniably spearfishing.
I grew up loving the water. Truth be told, I was freediving long before I knew that it was a formal sport; before I knew it had risks associated with it; and before I knew it was even a real option. At that point I fell into the most dangerous group of freedivers, the untrained and task-loaded solo divers. In my mind I was snorkeling, albeit aggressive snorkeling, but snorkeling nonetheless. I couldn’t dive very deep or my ears would scream at me and the resulting barotitis media [damage to the middle ear from pressure changes] would render me functionally deaf until it resolved. Of course, that wouldn’t stop me from hitting the water whenever I could.
It wasn’t until I had finished my master’s degree in education that I started my formal dive training and got scuba certified. I was hooked. I started helping with every course, advancing through the ranks until ultimately earning my scuba instructor credentials with the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI).
Somewhere along the line I found an old speargun in a shop and asked about it. Being a science teacher with a love for environmental science, I have always felt that it is important to know where my food comes from, and I have always done my best to raise, grow, or harvest my own food. I also love to fish and am aware of the problems associated with our commercial fisheries, environmentally speaking. So spearfishing appealed to me as both an application of diving and as a way to sustainably harvest food for my family and friends.
For The Love of Breath-hold
As I became more proficient and more connected with our local spearfishing community, I realized that spearing on scuba wasn’t universally accepted. I started getting gentle nudges to start spearing on breath-hold. At the time I thought that freedivers were a pretty crazy bunch, and I honestly had zero interest in freediving beyond about 40 ft/12 m for more than a minute. That gave me all the time I needed to hunt our local targets of lingcod, rockfish, and cabezon.
I took my first freediving course with that goal in mind. My mindset was that I would do the breath-hold required, learn the technique, and then spearfish safely. However,
I would never really use it for anything more than shallow Northwest spearfishing.
Little did I know that it would change my life.
Upon taking my first course, I fell in love with freediving and spearfishing on breath-hold. I had already come to the realization that local spearfishing was not very challenging when you have a tank on your back. Not that doing it on breath-hold leveled the playing field, but pursuing my dinner underwater while holding my breath definitely added a new element of fairness and adventure to the hunt, and I loved it. I also observed that the marine environment interacted with me differently and I with it when I entered the water on breath-hold versus when I was on scuba. I wanted more.
I became comfortable exceeding my initial goals and was curious how far I could actually go. So I continued my training and eventually became a freediving instructor, and then an instructor trainer for both NAUI and Performance Freediving International (PFI). As divers we are drawn to the water, but I felt the pull in such a way that I decided to leave my job teaching high school–and scuba–and pursue my passion for breath-hold diving. I discovered that I enjoy the pursuit of depth on the line and the mental challenge of pushing for longer static breath-holds. I enjoy diving deeper on a breath-hold than I do on scuba, but if I am diving for fun, I always come back to spearfishing.
I often get mixed responses to my passion for spearfishing. The most common response is from onlookers who are genuinely interested in what I’m doing and about the fish I catch. Even the hook-and-line folk whom we share sites with will more often than not be excited about what we are doing and ask us where the fish are holding, or if we can find that favorite jig they lost earlier in the day. Occasionally, though, I run across someone with a negative perception of what we do. My approach to this is to always be respectful, ask questions to understand their point of view, and then respectfully advocate for responsible spearfishing.
In my mind, spearfishing–and especially spearfishing on breath-hold in the Pacific Northwest–is the most sustainable way to harvest seafood. If you enjoy eating seafood, harvesting it yourself is the most responsible way to do it. On the flip side, I also try to educate my fellow spearos on what species we target and when, being mindful of reproductive cycles and growth rates. I encourage them to be good representatives for our sport and our community. We often talk about the food quality of a trophy size fish versus a smaller fish, or the fecundity of a large female lingcod and how many smaller lingcod it would take to produce the same number of eggs. Once a harvest is made, we discuss what images we should put on social media and how we can be respectful of our catch and the community.
When considering my personal hunting/harvesting, I try to make sure that every day in the water is focused on safety and enjoyment. Earlier this year, my team and I had the opportunity to go after a couple of world records for spearfishing, and we were successful. Even on the days where a trophy fish is the target, we focus on fish that are part of a sustainable stock, and we are very selective in our harvest by only taking the fish we need that day. I enjoy the interaction as much as the harvest.
Finding the fish and then leading it to where you can present your shot takes a lot of patience and practice. Some of my most memorable fish were ones that I ultimately passed on for one reason or another. I will always remember a drop in Hawaii where I called in a large uhu from way down the reef, after my buddy had spooked it. I had set up behind a coral head banked by a wall creating a natural pinch point. The fish became curious, swam across the reef to investigate, and went right through the pinch that I had set up, providing me with the perfect shot. As the fish–which was larger than any uhu I had seen in a long time–swam past, I just enjoyed watching it carry out its business. I was flying out the next day and knew there was no way I would use all of that catch, so I left it on the reef.
Freedive spearfishing provides an incredible way to enjoy our marine environment and harvest fresh food. It is about a lot more than simply going out and shooting whatever you can: It is the most selective way to get dinner, and most spear fishermen and women are some of the strongest ocean advocates out there. Our passion lies not only in hunting but in becoming part of the marine environment. I am not alone in my sentiments about leaving fish more often than taking them.
If you are interested in spearfishing on breath-hold, please take a freediving class first. Learn the technique, and, more importantly, the freediving safety protocols. Taking a local spearfishing course is also a great way to speed you on your learning curve and to ensure that you get off to a good and safe start.
Dan Semrad II is the NAUI Freedive Training Coordinator, an Instructor Trainer (IT) for NAUI, for both freediving and scuba, and a PFI IT. Dan is a professional educator with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in teaching. After becoming a scuba instructor, Dan wrote curriculum enabling his high school science students to earn scuba certification, a high school science credit, and a college credit. Before leaving full-time public education to pursue a career in freediving, Dan was the recipient of MIT’s “Excite Award” for innovative classroom projects. Dan left the scuba shop that he co-founded to start The Oregon Freediving Company, the first freediving shop in Oregon, which caters to all types of freediving with emphasis on spearfishing. Dan has coached athletes to national records; worked as a competition safety diver on multiple national records; competed in spearfishing tournaments; and assisted in world-record spearfishing trips. His website is www.oregonfreediving.com, which includes a course and events schedule. You can also contact him at email@example.com.
Getting Back in the Water with Caveman Phil Short
With local diving slowly opening in the wake of the pandemic, InDepth caught up with British cave explorer and educator Phil Short to see how he navigated his post lockdown re-submergence. And what about those 14, 15, 16 month old oxygen sensors?
by Michael Menduno
Header photo by Michael Thomas. Phil Short swims under Wookey Chamber 14.
With diving just beginning to resume in various parts of the world after what felt like an interminable shutdown, we thought it would be interesting to check in with some of our friends to see how they were approaching their return to the underwater world after such a long hiatus.
Ironically, it’s been the longest that 51-year old British cave explorer, scientific diving officer, exosuit pilot, educator and film consultant Phil Short, principal of Dark Water Explorations Ltd. has been out of the water in his entire 30-year diving career. How did one of tech diving’s indefatigable pioneers plot his re-submergence, and what would he offer up to colleagues about to take the plunge?
We chatted up Short just as he was booking his first dive project trip abroad; this is what the ardent caveman said.
InDepth: Maybe we can start with you explaining a little about the circumstances in the UK. I know you were on lock down as far as diving was concerned, and they are now in the process of opening up.
Phil Short: Basically, when the COVID-19 crisis began, the country went into lockdown for all nonessential activities. So obviously, any type of sport and recreation was included in that. And then, after about two months, they slowly started to reduce the restrictions, certainly for more normal activities and allowed certain sports to take place again. There was a lot of controversy over diving, because COVID-19 is a respiratory or lung-borne disease. So there was concern that it could create additional potential hazards with lung expansion injuries and embolisms.
In the UK, we have a group called the British Diving Safety Group, which is made up of various organizations including diving training agencies: the British equivalent of the Coast Guard, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is our version of OSHA and the diving industry trade organization, and SITA (Scuba Industries Trade Association). I am a member, and we met to determine what the safest and most prudent, most expedited means were to get people back in the water. We consulted with the hyperbaric medical community, COVID-19 related medical experts, the agencies with the authorities that control charter boat operations, and with the HSE.
The first permissions were for small groups. Basically, you and one buddy could do shore dives. We adopted recommendations by the NSS-CDS as to how gas sharing should take place, and safety or S-drills so you are not breathing from each other’s equipment.
So when did you go diving?
As a member of the BDSG committee, I was very diligent not to go in the water until the evening we announced that it was permissible to go beach or shore diving. The next morning, 28May 2020, I left my house at 4 AM to go and do a beach dive on a landing craft from the second world war, a genuine World War II wreck. I descended at 6:23 AM and it was just heaven because I had been out of the water for 86 days because of the restrictions. And it was just great to get back in.
Where did you make your last pre-COVID-19 dive?
My previous dive had been on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands off of West Africa teaching a trimix rebreather class. It was a 93m/303 ft dive. I got on the plane, flew home, and the lockdown started almost immediately. And then 86 days later, I was doing a 12m/39 ft dive off the beach in the UK. It was my longest break in diving in the 30 years I’ve been in the industry.
Let me ask you, did you have a conscious strategy or approach to getting back in the water? You didn’t start back in at 90 meters.
Yes, it was conscious. Certainly rebreathers, it’s not just like riding a bike. You do need to keep current. I recommend to my students to be doing at least one skill dive on the rebreather per month, minimum, to maintain currency.
So I decided that for the first dive, once the permissions had been given, to go make the beach dive on doubles. I’ve got a nice little twin 8.5L set that’s small enough for walking over the beach. It still had the redundancy, but it was simple scuba and a simple depth of just 12m/39ft. Basically, the first thing I did when I got in the water was descend just a few feet and made sure that I was proficient with doing a shutdown and isolation drill on the doubles.
Then I went for the dive on a good nitrox with a long no-decompression time and surfaced way before I was getting anywhere near decompression. I took it gently. First time back in 86 days, I took it gently, and then over the last six or seven weeks, I’ve started to build up from there.
I know you’ve talked and probably compared notes with colleagues and other divers. Do you think people there are approaching getting back in the water sanely or is it a bit of a madhouse? How would you characterize things in the UK?
I would say, as often happens, it’s mixed. So, based on recommendations of the agencies and their instructors, the majority of people are getting back into it gradually like I did myself. But there’ll always be those who say, “Oh, I’m a good diver. I don’t need to do that. I’ve not been allowed to dive for two or three months. I want to go do what I want to do.” And they go straight out and do a 50 or 60m dive, which I think is just foolish.
Even ignoring the COVID-19 situation, if you were out of diving because of having a kid, or experiencing a job change or anything like that, or after a big layoff, I think it would be prudent to get back in gently and then slowly build up. So, my first dive was shallow with open circuit doubles. My next dive was a very limited penetration, shallow cave dive on open circuit, side mount, again with redundancy. A no-decompression dive but back in my natural environment of caves for a little swim around.
Gradually over the weeks, because I had better access to caves than I did to the sea, I did more and more cave dives and slowly built up in duration and distance, but still on open circuit. I then got permission from the owner to access one of the inland lakes, and we did some pre-official opening work for the owners of the site. I got back in on the rebreather but again, no-decompression, relatively shallow, no more than 30m/100 ft. Next, I integrated stages and my DPV (diver propulsion vehicle).
My first teaching was a Level one, Mod One rebreather course that I team-taught with a fellow UK instructor. It was a perfect way to get back in gently because we were running 10 hours over 8 to 10 dives of constant skills for the students. So that was a real refresher. And then finally last weekend, a group of us that had all been doing that type of gradual build up got out on a boat off the south coast of the UK, on a 33 m/108 ft deep wreck on Saturday. On Sunday, we dived a very well-known wreck, the SS Salsette, in 45 m/147 ft of water in beautiful conditions. Calm sea, good visibility, and a real wreck. So I had made a gradual buildup over seven or eight weeks to get to that point, rather than jumping straight back in.
Sweet. You mentioned rebreathers (CCR). Currently, there is a global shortage of oxygen sensors underway as a result of the pandemic. Oxygen sensors are being diverted to the medical industry, which is under siege right now from COVID-19. Any concerns or worries that people will go diving with out-of-date cells? Do you think that’s an issue?
It definitely concerns me. I’ve been a CCR instructor at all the levels, almost exclusively for the last 15 years, and I’ve seen people go out and happily spend five, six, seven, 10,000 pounds on a brand new rebreather and the training and then go out and be cheap on a £16 fill of Sofnolime or a £16 fill of oxygen. And you’re like, what are you doing? You paid £10,000 for this equipment and you’re risking your life on a £16 refill of consumables? People are so desperate right now to get back to their hobby; they feel like it’s been taken away from them, that I worry they may not always act sensibly.
It’s been a battle over the last five or six years to get people to really wake up and pay attention to the fact that these sensors are your life support. There was a very high-profile accident that was caused by overrun sensors a few years back with a quite-well-known person in the industry. He effectively died on the bottom, was rescued by his buddy, then was helicoptered to the hospital where he was put into an induced coma. He came out of it several days later and he was very, very lucky to survive. And very, very lucky to come back to actual diving again. But that was all caused by old, overbaked sensors.
So what do you see happening?
I think what’s going to happen, you know, is that some people ran out of fresh sensors a couple of months ago so now it’s 14 months, 15 months, 16 months. And some may be thinking, “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay. They’re reading fine, they’re working fine.” Some people might be doing linearity checks, doing oxygen flushes at 6 m/20 ft to check if they read high when appropriate.
But really, the companies like AP Diving, JJ-CCR, Vobster Marine Systems, and others have put a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money into researching and independently testing these life-support machines for functionality, with certain parameters. Much like car manufacturers do so you can drive your family and your kids in a safe car. [Hammerhead CCR developer] Kevin Jurgenson summed it up once brilliantly when he put out a statement saying, ”Okay, people are questioning the duration that a sensor can last. Some people would say 12 months. Others would say 52 weeks. Some would say 365 days.” And he carried on to include hours, minutes etc. Basically saying, a year is a year. Whichever way you try to stretch it, it’s a year. No more.
Personally, I would not violate that because those three simple galvanic fuel cells that represent probably somewhere between $200 and $300 depending on the manufacturer and the unit, representing a tiny percentage of the expense that I’ve outlaid to become a rebreather diver, is not worth my life.
As I mentioned, I am now back on my rebreather after starting on open circuit, and if my sensors eventually pass their 12-month date, I’m very happy to return to open circuit for as long as I have to while I wait to buy some new cells.
I have always believed in my educational career of thirty years in the diving industry to lead by example. Those are my feelings. I know from experience when you make comments like that, and it’s effectively the same as raising your head above the trench in a warfare situation. People are going to take shots; but bring it on. If you’ve got a sensible, scientific argument for extending your cells past 12 months, then I’m happy to discuss it. But I don’t think there is one.
So the moral is, if you have sensors that are past either one year, 12 months, 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,000 minutes, or 31.5 million seconds, then you need to go back to open circuit, or not dive until you can get some new ones?
I believe so. The manufacturers whose rebreathers I have dived and taught on over the last 10 years are people that were passionate about rebreather safety. And much like [Sheck] Exley, who focused on improving cave training and cave safety by writing Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival, these manufacturers—people like Martin Parker at AP Diving and Jan Petersen at JJ CCR have gone the extra mile to improve safety.
You know full well from the aquaCORPS days, if you look at the safety record of CCR diving now, versus 15 years ago, we made a difference. It has become safer. Why ruin it, because of impatience and a short-term, relatively short-term, restriction on availability of consumables?
Right. In fact, I have talked to Nicky Finn at AP and also Jakub Sláma at Divesoft who have been in touch with sensor manufacturers regarding shortages, and it seems that the situation may be stabilizing and or easing up, assuming we don’t have a second wave of COVID-19 infections. So hopefully, the situation will improve.
Actually, I’ve heard that from several manufacturers, and I think it will improve quicker than was first anticipated. And that’s even more of a reason for not doing anything foolish and being a little bit patient with this to be safe.
Last question: What’s next for you? Got any big projects coming up?
I just booked my first flight to travel out of the UK again. This time to Croatia. I’m going to be designing and building a water dredge system for recovering and capturing sediment on an archaeological site for a project that we are going to do in October. This is a follow-up project from one we did in 2017 to recover a US World War II pilot from a wrecked B24 bomber that ditched in the Adriatic Sea. We’re going back to do another recovery on a different wreck.
The dredge system will be designed to work at the appropriate depth level so that we can basically recover the sediment without losing anything. Specifically, we’re not going to miss any of the crew that are found through that dredging. So, I’ve got a 10-day trip to build that system, test it in the same depth of water, and have it ready for the project.
When I come back from that, I’m flying out to Switzerland to train on the Divesoft Liberty sidemount with a good friend and former student of mine, Nadir Quarta. It will be my first sidemount rebreather. I’ve got no intention of moving away from my JJ as my primary rebreather, but I’ve got quite a few cave projects that require a side mount that I can’t do in my back-mount JJ. They don’t offer a sidemount, and because of distance and depth, I can’t do it on open circuit. I put a lot of thought into which unit to use, and am very impressed with Divesoft’s engineering and build. They’re also very courteous and professional to deal with. I like working with people like that.
After training, I plan to attend a Swiss technical dive conference, Dive TEC! in Morges as a speaker, where I will be talking on my 30-year journey as a cave diver and explorer.
Fun times ahead! Thank you, Phil. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor and, an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine “aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving”(1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018.
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